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Intisar Abioto: Black lives writ large in Chehalem Cultural Center show

The Portland photographer says she is interested in the “lived history of Black place,” the legacy of Black artists in Oregon who came before.


Intisar Abioto's larger-than-life portraits appear as if they were meant to hang in the Chehalem Cultural Center's Mezzanine Gallery. Photo by: David Bates
Intisar Abioto’s larger-than-life portraits appear as if they were meant to hang in the Chehalem Cultural Center’s Mezzanine Gallery. Photo by: David Bates

The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg is a sprawling building with half a dozen gallery spaces for visual art, including the Mezzanine Gallery. In full, towering view upon entering the building, it is also physically inaccessible. With no disrespect to any artist whose work has appeared there over the years, I’ve often cast my gaze up at the Mezzanine display and thought, “Well, that’s nice… but why did they put it all the way up there?”

That question doesn’t arise with and the black rainbows when, a new exhibition by Intisar Abioto, whose work is seemingly everywhere lately. The 36-year-old Portland multidisciplinary artist has this show at Chehalem through Sept. 30, and you can see a similarly themed display of her work, Black Domain, at the Architectural Heritage Center in Portland through Sept. 24.

And the black rainbows when looks like it belongs there and nowhere else. Given the height of the photographic images, they probably wouldn’t fit anywhere else, and the staggered display of nearly 20 portraits of Black people makes them appear as if they’re emerging from the ether, ready to work their magic on you.

“Yeah, thank you!” Abioto replied when I told her that. “Yeah, that’s definitely the goal.”

"Sienna, New Oreleans," by Intisar Abioto
“Sienna, New Orleans,” by Intisar Abioto

Abioto said the exhibit, or at least the concept for it, originated in another large space: the 5,000-square-foot Building Five in Northwest Portland, where she had a residency a year or so ago. Given the opportunity to fill that renovated industrial space, Abioto said the vision that came to mind was this: larger-than-life images of Black people, some family, others people she encountered on the street.

Carissa Burkett, who was then full-time at the Chehalem center, saw the exhibition and asked Abioto if she’d be interested in using the Mezzanine. “She reached out to me,” Abioto said. “And even though it’s a different kind of space, I think it works in that space.”

The images are nearly all women, and whether they’re sitting on a sofa, framed by trees and lawn, in front of a brick wall, or standing in the street — and regardless of whether they seem posed or not – all look as if they belong precisely where they are, at the moment in space and time that Abioto snapped their picture.

Abioto was born in 1986 in Memphis, Tenn., the daughter of artists. When she was 14, she started using her father’s Canon AE-1 single lens reflex camera and hasn’t looked back, even though curating exhibitions like this and the one in Portland requires that she does look back. The images, according to the show notes, arise from her own “dreamscape, hopescape, and decades long movement body travels” over 22 years.

To say that Abioto, interviewed here by Oregon ArtsWatch contributor Dmae Lo Roberts in March, is “multidisciplinary” almost seems an understatement. She is a dancer, writer, and photographer, and her work comes to fruition through the disciplines of journalism, artistic curation, historical research, and activism that ebb and flow into each other.

"Great Godmother Flying Home," by Intisar Abioto
“Great Godmother Flying Home,” by Intisar Abioto

Abioto has lived in Oregon since 2010, and since landing here she’s become intensely interested in the legacies and contributions of Black artists in Oregon who came before. “Because I myself was struggling here and I myself needed to know how they had survived, thrived — or if they hadn’t. So I sought them/us out.”

That comment appeared in a piece she wrote for Oregon Humanities’ magazine in 2019. She found the historical excavation work inspiring, and it is ongoing. It also informs and the black rainbows when: One of the images is of Portland artist Adriene Cruz, pictured at what looks like a bus or MAX train stop in Portland in 2018.

A key inspiration for the Newberg exhibition is the African diasporic myth of Flying Africans, which has evolved over hundreds of years. The origins are complicated and span continents and cultures, but the North American roots may be found at Igbo Landing on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia. In 1803, enslaved Black people there revolted and, rather than remain in bondage, walked together into the marsh. “Flight,” in African oral storytelling traditions, became code for the escape and liberation sought by Black people who were ripped from their homes and enslaved. In the story of Igbo Landing, it signifies their souls flew across the ocean back to Nigeria.

Themes of flight and liberation were beautifully captured in 1985 in a collection of Black American folktales penned by Virginia Hamilton and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Abioto recalls having a copy of  The People Could Fly, by Virginia Hamilton, which won the Coretta Scott King Book Award in 1986, in her home as a youth. Imagery from another of Hamilton’s books, Her Stories, is included in one of the Newberg show’s images as an overlay with the artist’s own mother. 

“They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. And they would walk up on the air like climbin up on a gate. And they flew like blackbirds over the fields. Black, shiny wings flappin against the blue up there.”

— Virginia Hamilton, “The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales
An illustration form Virginia Hamilton’s book "Her Stories" is  overlaid onto a photo of Inistar Abioto's mother in "Midnite & Her Stories."
An illustration form Virginia Hamilton’s book “Her Stories” is overlaid onto a photo of Intisar Abioto’s mother in “Midnite & Her Stories.” Photo by: Intisar Abioto

In the exhibition notes, Abioto writes and the black rainbows when “is the movement-based traveling site-specific public art expression of this living archive, one compendia in the constellation of story works by the artist imaging after this way …  it moves within and through the traditions and vision of the African diasporic myth of the Flying Africans, a canonical tale of Black flight and freedom re/told for hundreds of years by Black people in the Americas, a tale that continues to live and find expression in their varied and expansive dreamscapes today.”

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The Portland show features more of Abioto’s photography focused on Black Portlanders and Oregonians, an exhibition of  “the lived history of Black place. Through portraits of Black Portlanders and Oregonians in their homes, at work, in creativity, and at worship, the exhibit captures places of architectural, cultural, and historical relevance to the Black community.”

Abioto is insanely busy, both with her work and the accompanying press attention. In 2020, while Black Lives Matter protests were raging in Portland and across the nation, she was one of two women featured in a New York Times piece about the “burst of creativity” among Black Portland artists. She was recently awarded a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation to create Black Art/ists Gathering, a three-day retreat for Black artists, curators, and arts administrators in Oregon, to be held in 2023. She also has projects in the works at Southern Oregon State University and at the Multnomah County Courthouse in Portland.

She will also curate Black Artists of Oregon, the first major exhibition of its kind at the Portland Art Museum. That seems appropriate, given that during her historical research, Abioto discovered the museum’s permanent collection lacked a single work by a Black Portland female artist. That exhibition opens in June 2023 and runs into December.

Abioto has known she wanted to do this ever since she picked up that camera and started taking pictures.

“It was rather easy,” she said. “I mean, my mom is an artist and my dad is an artist, so I knew it was possible. So as I think about it, I don’t know that there was ever a point when I thought that I wouldn’t be an artist.” 

David Bates is an award-winning Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and is currently a freelance writer whose clients have included the McMinnville News-RegisterOregon Wine Press, and Indulge, a food-oriented publication. He has a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a long history of involvement in the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players of Oregon and other theaters in Oregon.

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